Being a teenager is hard enough, so one can only imagine the difficulty in being a transgender teenager. Transgender teens face a host of issues as they struggle for support and acceptance at home, at school and in society. Unfortunately, Illinois lawmakers are not making the transgender teen's life any easier.
A new proposal in Illinois to amend the state School Code could force transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their birth-assigned sex, rather than their gender. The bill ( HB 4474 ), filed in January by Rep. Thomas Morrison ( R-Palatine ), would force school boards to "designate each pupil restroom, changing room, or overnight facility accessible by multiple pupils simultaneously, whether located in a public school building or located in a facility utilized by the school for a school-sponsored activity, for the exclusive use of pupils of only one sex." The bill, which has more than two dozen co-sponsors, requires schools to provide "reasonable accommodations" for students using single-occupancy restrooms/locker rooms, but the students first need the written request of a parent or guardian for such an accommodation to be made.
Currently, under federal laws, students can use the bathroom of the gender they identify with. However, state lawmakers appear to be following the anti-transgender path that North Carolina began paving. Multiple states, including Kentucky, Missouri and South Carolina, to name a few, have similar "bathroom bills" pending. And while many of these bills seem to die in committee, it is not exactly reassuring to know that states like South Dakota had bills that made it all the way to the governor before being vetoed. As it stands, HB 4474 sits in the hands of the Illinois House Human Services Committee.
Forcing transgender teenagers to use restrooms that correspond with their sex, but not their gender, places them at a greater risk for harassment and being singled out from their peers. Fortunately, federal government officials have directly spoken to these state lawmakers and to the transgender community as a wholeand they certainly are not mincing their words. For instance, on May 4, Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant for the U.S. Department of Justice, sent a letter to North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory informing him that the bathroom bill he signed into law is a violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, both of which prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. Gupta reiterated that this should be extended to gender identity.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch echoed Gupta's sentiments in May: "Today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward. Please know that history is on your side."
Despite the support from federal leaders, HB 4474 remains hanging in the balance for Illinois transgender teens. The Illinois Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in housing, employment and public accommodations, which includes schools and other educational facilities. Further, the Chicago Human Rights Ordinance prohibits the denial of equal treatment to any individual based on sex, gender identity and sexual orientation in places of public accommodations. Yet, that may not be enough to combat HB 4474 through the Illinois legislature.
One can only hope that the Obama administration's guidance and organizations like Lambda Legal, the ACLU and the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance can help further a culture of understanding in Illinois schools and combat the fear that bills like HB 4474 foster. After all, being a transgender teenager is hard enough without having to worry about what restroom you will be allowed to use while at school, a place where all studentstransgender or otherwiseshould feel safe and accepted.
Matthew J. Ruza is an Associate in the Litigation Practice Group in Clark Hill's Chicago Office.